The Collegian
Thursday, January 26, 2023

Music Mondays | 070 Shake and popstar superpowers

<p><em>Graphic by YounHee Oh</em></p>

Graphic by YounHee Oh

To make room in a crowded room of pop superstars, all waxing and waning erratically, all talented and with endless resources at their disposal, a young artist needs a superpower. 

Drake had the knack for making rich friends and fashioned himself into a crooning chameleon of all pop genres throughout the last decade, and at the start he was especially in his feels in a way that felt very Drake. Bruno Mars has found ways to make the old feel new over and over again, while dancing with a kind of superhero charisma. Lady Gaga has her unique roar, and her mystery helped her break into highest levels of pop stardom. 

Everyone we now know as all-world talents started with some superpower. At least when searching for who will both go viral and have staying power, it helps to look for those with a unique quality to fall back on. And most don't get to both have a top charting hit and maintain a long career (we’ll see if Lil Nas X’s ostensible Twitter power keeps him hit-making longer than a few more months).

In 2018, Kanye West featured 070 Shake (real name Danielle Balbuena) on “Ghost Town” and changed her career forever. She hardly had any solo work to her name then, but “Ghost Town” lived past the Wyoming album cycles, has lived beyond everything Kanye has said and done to delegitimize himself as a public figure worth listening to and even garnered a sequel featuring Kid Cudi. 

After Shake’s bellowing, soaring, fleeting solo on “Ghost Town,” the music world and I waited impatiently for news on her label offers, her new singles and eventually a full-length record all her own. Shake almost certainly waited too long to capitalize, especially after her mission statement in a 2018 Pitchfork interview, “I want to be the Freddie Mercury of my generation.”

Her most streamed song on Spotify is still easily “Honey,” which came out in 2016. She released “Nice to Have,” the lead single for her debut album, Modus Vivendi, last April, losing steam before the album's eventual January 2020 release date. She’s currently doing modest streaming numbers, with no real evidence that she’s accumulated the kind of fanaticism typically necessary after a pop debut to climb into a kind of Mercury-level of dominance. 

But none of those extracurriculars really matter for what shows up on this debut. Modus Vivendi (“way of life” in Latin) travels the globe, genre-hopping with snappy track lengths from trap, to cloud rap, to West African drumming, distorted stadium rock and even mall-rock emo. Shake has mentioned inspirations ranging from Lauryn Hill to My Chemical Romance in the past, and she fulfills that streaming-era promise of pulling from all inspirations without conscience. We're in the era of nearly free music, no genre gate-keeping and a listenership trained to bounce seamlessly around different sonic landscapes. 

And that dismissal of traditional pop album structure in both formal layout and sonic switch-ups is still meticulously considered, which is partially why her album was so long delayed (Shake also got lyme disease from a tick last summer).  

Her flexible approach as a 22-year-old product of the streaming era is not her superpower, though. 

The superpower, even if it never leads to a Freddie Mercury career, is her ability to dominate in a song’s noisiest, messiest moments. It's her vocal agility and preternatural knack for absolutely belting without ever straining. She’s at the party but in the next room over, confiding in you, and you’re going to want to hear what she’s saying. 

Nowhere is this power more palpable than on the show-stopping “Guilty Conscience,” in which she finds her distrustful lover in a compromising position, “Five a.m. when I walked in / Could not believe what I saw, yeah / You on another one's body / Ghosts of the past came to haunt me.” She gets right to the heart of that feeling of wishing you were wrong all along, hoping you can distrust yourself just as much as you do your lover. 

There’s a moment like that “Guilty Conscience” chorus on nearly every track. 070 Shake may not have found her best marketing strategies yet, but she’s certainly shown more talent and more ideas on her first record than many aspiring pop starlets ever get to. 

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